As many can agree, there’s nothing like a good seedy scandal for some shock and entertainment. And with all the characters that have passed through the Village, it’s no surprise that plenty such events occurred right here. One such story involves Josie Mansfield, a little-known but thoroughly fascinating figure who rose to fame as the subject of a scandalous love triangle.
A Tumultuous Start
Born on December 15, 1847 in Boston, Josie (or, Helen Josephine) lost her father at the young age of 7 when he was murdered in California amid the competition of the gold rush. Following this tragedy, her life became even more tumultuous when her father’s brother, Charles Mansfield, married her mother. Her now-stepfather became sexually abusive and violently threatening, while her mother began to drink heavily. Charles remained in Josie’s life until her early teens. After her mother and stepfather divorced, Josie and her mother moved to California, where further drama unfolded. Her mother remarried to a professional gambler who forced Josie into a horrifying scandal. Included in this was the Lawlor family, including Frank Lawlor, an actor whom Josie married in the hopes that he would protect her from her dangerous stepfather.
Mansfield in New York
Josie and her husband moved to Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and finally New York, where the two divorced. Impoverished and unable to find work, Josie lived on Lexington Avenue around 24th Street and frequented the home of her friend Annie Wood (described as a bordello, or brothel) on 34th Street. Here she met Jim Fisk, a wealthy stockbroker and railroad operator whose young wife “tolerated Fisk’s many extramarital affairs.” Not long after he wooed Josie with money and gifts, buying her an elegant brownstone at 18 West 24th Street, their affair became public and shocked New York society.
Enter the third leg of the triangle: Edward “Ned” Stokes, who operated an oil refinery in Brooklyn, and had a sneaky arrangement with Fisk’s railroad business. Clearly, both gentlemen tended toward big spending and big risk. As Stokes and Josie kindled their affair, arguments erupted over fidelity, love, money, and, of course, business deals.
Murder at the Grand Central Hotel
Complex legal and financial arrangements still weren’t enough for Stokes. Stokes believed Fisk owed him a significant payment for his refinery business, which Fisk had taken over by force. Threatening (but failing) to publish Fisk’s incriminating letters, Stokes waited for Fisk on the staircase of the Grand Central Hotel, one of the largest hotels in the United States at the time. Located at 667-77 Broadway, this 1870 Second Empire building certainly must have set a theatrical scene for a love-triangle murder.
Standing on the second-floor landing of the ladies’ entrance to the hotel, Stokes heard Fisk approaching, descended toward him, and fired two shots. Fisk died from a shot to the abdomen, though not before identifying Stokes as the criminal. Police first detained him at the Mercer Street Police Station, where three decades later the first victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire were taken. Stokes was ultimately found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six years at Sing Sing Prison. (Though, apparently, because Stokes was a wealthy man, he “had a carpet on the floor, had his meals brought in from Delmonico’s and had bottles of scented water for bathing” while awaiting trial.)
Though most of this story takes place outside the Village, it’s interesting to remember these darker events that happened right around the corner among New York’s high society. Of course, this history is now harder to see, as the Grand Central Hotel collapsed in the summer of 1973. Housing for NYU Law School students now sits in its place. But tales like these have their way of staying alive, and we can indulge in their dramatic modern retellings.